The Burnelli Controversy

Was this designer a genius or his own worst enemy?

Burnelli (front) designed conventional aircraft like the 1916 Continental Pusher before turning to lifting-fuselage airplanes with the RB-1. (NASM)
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But an airplane’s landing speed is essentially a market decision, one of the tradeoffs in aircraft design.  If Boeing had wanted the 747 to take off at 100 mph in 3,000 feet, it could have simply enlarged the wing and limited the weight.  But since the major cities of the world all have 10,000-foot runways and since there is no great public clamor for slower, safer landing speeds, Boeing saw no reason to pay the speed, payload, and cost penalties of a short-takeoff-and-landing 747, Burnelli or otherwise.

Goodlin may not win many converts to his aerodynamic theories, but he’s on much firmer ground when he criticizes the modern jetliner’s crashworthiness.  Goodlin says the Burnelli’s rigid box-like fuselage would protect passengers in a crash, pointing proudly to the 1935 crash of the UB-14.  The airplane hit the ground, wingtip down, at 130 mph and cartwheeled.  Engines, wings, and tail were ripped off, but the boxy fuselage remained intact and the crew walked away.  One vocal Burnelli proponent, Edmund J. Cantilli, professor of transportation planning and engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, has decried the poor crashworthiness of the modern jetliner and proposed a Burnelli-style craft it its stead.

In 1986 Goodlin enlisted the aid of Florida senator Lawton Chiles, who persuaded the Air Force to invite Goodlin to Wright Field for a speech about the Burnelli concept.  Goodlin promptly demanded that the engineering vice presidents of Boeing, Douglas, Northrop, and Lockheed be in the audience.  These are the people who need to hear his message, he says.  “They care nothing for principle, ethics, or integrity.  They care nothing for the number of people unnecessarily killed.  They will even jockey us into war if it means preserving their power and greed.”

And so Goodlin continues to wage his holy war on all fronts.  Like most holy warriors, he seems to savor the call to battle more than the promise of victory.  “I hate to say this about Slick,” says one Burnelli supporter, shaking his head, “but darn it, I wish he’d simmer down a little.  He’d accomplish a lot more.”

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